For twelve years, Sergio Giuisti has been serving traditional Italian fare at Firenze By Night. As the name suggests, many of the dishes have a Tuscan spin, and are based on recipes Sergio brought with him from his native Pescia, a small medieval market town west of Florence. The robust Pappardelle Toscana is one such dish. A ragout of thinly sliced roasted rabbit is finished with a veal stock and white wine, and served over wide, flat house-made pasta noodles. Then there's the Gnocchi Firenze--plump, delicate-tasting potato dumplings smothered in a velvety "Aurora" sauce of fresh tomatoes with a touch of cream. Sergio also makes a deliciously tart and dangerously potent limoncello--a refreshing Italian digestif bursting with ripe lemons, sweetened with sugar, served chilled.
Some nights, Sergio's wife Marcia fills in as hostess, and on summer evenings when school's out, diners might be greeted by Valentina, their oldest daughter, while son Paolo clears tables and young Nadia helps Dad in the kitchen.
Firenze is one of what has become an increasing rarity in San Francisco: the multi-generational, family-owned and operated Italian restaurant. In an era of celebrity chefs, style-before-substance meals, and Chez Panisse wannabes, the simplicity of the family restaurant is going by way of the single screen movie house. Fortunately in North Beach, there are still a number of them left.
Agostino tipped me off, so I waited for a Tuesday night to dine at Tommaso's, when his sister Lidia was cooking. A chilly fog hung over the city, but when I ducked into the cozy Kearny St. cellar, a rush of garlic-scented warmth enveloped me. The 70- year-old oak-fired brick oven in the corner reaches 750-800 degrees and can cook a pizza in under five minutes, ensuring that the small subterranean restaurant is always pleasantly toasty.
Pizza is what Tommaso's is famous for, and rightfully so. The thin-crust Neapolitan-style pies are outstanding-crisp yet tender crust, tangy tomato sauce, not overwhelmed by a half-inch of cheese. I judge a great pizza as one that doesn't need a pile of ingredients heaped on it, one that stands out in its simplicity. If it's made well, a simple Margherita pizza is all you need.
But pizza is not the only thing that the Crotti family does well.
A basket of heavenly garlic bread arrived at the table first, instead of the standard loaf. Served hot from the oven, the crust is crunchy, while inside the bread is pillowy soft, buttery, and loaded with garlic. My date and I shared a vegetarian antipasto--a kaleidoscopic platter of marinated zucchini, eggplant, green beans, chickpeas, asparagus, broccoli, roasted peppers, and a sweet yet vinegary red onion.
The highlight of the meal was Lidia's signature lasagna. Seven micro-thin sheets of pasta layered with restrained coatings of creamy ricotta and bathed in a well-spiced meat sauce. No single ingredient overwhelms--the result is near perfection in balance, texture and flavor, bringing this stalwart comfort food into a new realm.
Dessert was a sweet, flaky cannoli served with espresso. As the hour grew late, and the restaurant emptied, members of the Crotti family gathered in a corner booth near the kitchen.
"My father came here in 1969 from Lake Como in Northern Italy, looking for a business that would keep the family together," explains proprietor Agostino. And he found just that. A true family operation, his sister Carmen is a co-owner, sister Lydia cooks, nieces Tina, Jessica and Marina wait tables, nephew Dario founded the wine club, son Giorgio works the door on weekends, and his 78-year old father still comes in daily to do the books.
"The menu you see today is basically the same as it was in the "30s," he continues. "We introduced some of our dishes--the lasagna, the cheese ravioli with pesto, but 90 percent is the original Neapolitan-style recipes passed down from the Lupo family, the original owners."
A visit to La Felce is like stepping into your favorite grandparents' living room. Romano Marcucci, a native of Lucca, has kind, sparkling blue eyes and can usually be found behind the curved mahogany bar, while his petite and gracious wife Flora greets guests at the door. In the kitchen, brother-in-law Liliano has dished up plates of classic, un-fussy Italian food for 28 years.
Romano tapped his finger on a box on the top of the lengthy menu. "You see that?" he asks, indicating where it reads: FULL COURSE DINNER includes antipasto, salad, soup, pasta, entrée and ice cream or coffee. "We give you lotsa good food, and reasonable prices."
I stopped by for lunch on a recent afternoon. The four-course lunch option seemed a bit daunting for my level of appetite, (choice of minestrone, broth, pasta or salad, entrée, dessert or coffee for a mere $12.50), so I chose to sample a couple of house specialties a la carte.
Before we ordered, a charming waiter placed a silver bowl on the table between us --a complimentary appetizer of whole beans, perfectly al dente, seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic and parsley and marinated in olive oil. A Tuscan triumph--simply prepared yet abundantly tasty.
Baccala, a Friday special, is cured salt cod that has been soaked until it reconstitutes, then sautéed and served in a mild pomodoro sauce, and accompanied by a generous portion of polenta. The chunks of fish were both firm and flaky, and the sauce was pleasantly light enough not to eclipse the flavor of the cod.
Another signature La Felce dish, the Gnocchi Verdi with pesto, recently appeared in the glossy pages of Saveur alongside a photo of Liliano. This adaptation of the Ligurian dish was incredibly light and smooth-the dumplings nearly float before melting in the mouth--not at all the dense, doughy potato bombs that pass as gnocchi elsewhere.
At 6 p.m. on a Thursday, the bar at Sodini's was already filling up with regulars. Handsome Peter Sodini, a native San Franciscan who owns the place with brother Mark, mixed cocktails while the kitchen staff chopped and stirred, the heady perfume of garlic already pungent.
The brothers cut their teeth on this Green St. block, where their father owned Cuneo Bakery, and the two later opened the perennially popular Golden Boy--a legendary pizza joint serving thick, scrumptious Sicilian-style slices to North Beach revelers.
"People come here for the rack of lamb, the chicken picatta, the huge portions, and the laid back atmosphere," Tony, a native and a firefighter, told me over a cold pint while I waited for a table. "And the pizza's great too."
Soon, the place was crowded with a mix of locals, families, and couples, tucking into platters of carbonara (a rich, creamy pasta sauce made with pancetta and egg), all manner of linguine preparations, gigantic salads dripping with a zesty creamy Italian dressing, and the night's special--osso bucco.
Bartender/hostess extraordinaire Ana Handelman swooped by the table to say hello, simultaneously bussing glasses, dropping off baskets of bread, and seating guests. Her infectious smile and quick wit has made her an institution at this place. Peter Sodini says, "She's trademark."
Our pizza arrived, and it proved to be a champion among San Francisco thin-crust pies. With each bite I relinquished my East Coast pizza superiority to the Sodini's pie.
Lunch with Lorenzo began at noon. We met at North Beach Restaurant, the neighborhood institution he has presided over for 31 years--a place where glitterati hob nob in private rooms, local politicians scheme over plates of veal scaloppini, and seasoned, tuxedoed waiters anticipate every need.
Lorenzo Petroni had decanted two bottles of wine already--a Sangiovese and a Cabernet, made from grapes grown organically on his Sonoma Valley vineyard. Both wines were excellent and continued to "grow in the glass" as the meal progressed.
"First we try some prosciutto," our gregarious, large-living host announced, dispatching a waiter to bring the house delicacy cured on the premises-- some 300 legs of proscuitto dangle from the ceiling in the cellar below--while instructing me to sprinkle salt into the dish of olive oil beside my plate.
After we teased our palates with the sublime and salty ham, a plate of thickly sliced vine-ripened tomatoes layered with mozzarella and drizzled with virgin olive oil, (another product of Petroni's Sonoma digs) arrived, and Lorenzo regaled us with tales of his various hobbies and cottage industries--his wine collection (500+ bottles), real estate holdings (including a flat in Florence with a view of the Duomo), and his investment in a bacterial agent that cleans water naturally, eliminating the use of chemicals.
Next, the flavor and simplicity of Tuscan cuisine was successfully achieved in Chef Bruno Orsi's two rustic soups--Farro dalla Garfagnana, a hearty, porridge-like stew made with spelt flour and braschette , and Farinata de Lucca, a delicious, wintery bean soup, with a dollop of olive oil floating on top--a meal in itself.
But lunch was far from over.
The next three hours were an orgy of flavors, textures and tastes: sand dabs prepared in a light "Mugnaia" sauce with wine, butter, capers and lemon; the chef's signature osso bucco; chicken al Mattone, rolled in herbs and cooked under a brick; and garden fresh sautéed broccoli rabe.
After a cheese course of French Roquefort, and homemade lemon sorbet served in a dainty silver cup, this ultimate host pulled out a 53-year-old bottle of grappa. North Beach Restaurant has the largest collection of the mighty Italian elixir around, (more than 50 bottles).
"Now you're dangerous," Lorenzo declared, laughing, after schooling me on the proper grappa drinking technique. Confident that I got it, he poured another round.
Now, who's dangerous?